“We’re going to be late!”
Our tour guide, Umesh, had us park our bikes outside Jaipur’s morning vegetable market, and told us to run. After eight straight days of unlimited naan while on a solo tour of India with a group called Flash Pack, that was not exactly an easy feat, but I followed the direction and took off into a dead sprint through the vendors. I weaved through the streets as quickly as I could, with absolutely no idea where I was going, avoiding stray animals and women carrying hundreds of pounds of vegetables on their heads.
Ten out-of-breath minutes later, my nine travel companions—who were complete strangers before we’d touched down in Delhi a few days prior—arrived at a park. It was just before 8 a.m., and the grass still smelled like dew. “This,” I thought to myself as I looked from the empty patch of grass to the faces of my confused companions, “is a strange thing to have to sprint for.”
As if he could hear my thought, at that moment, Umesh asked us to stand in a circle, then put two fingers into his mouth and wolf-whistled into the air. Within a minute, a group of 15 Indian men who had been hanging out in various other parts of the park made their way toward our little congregation. “These men are going to let us join them for laughing yoga,” he says.
What is laughing yoga?
Laughing yoga involves getting together with a group of peers or strangers to, well, laugh. It differs from your usual flow class in that there are no asanas (aka poses), but still falls into the “yoga” category because it incorporates pranayama (aka yogic breathing) and stretching. It’s been a part of Indian culture for longer than anyone can really say, but was formalized in the 1990s by a doctor in Mumbai who developed laughing yoga clubs after realizing the positive effects that it could have on people’s health.
Laughing yoga involves getting together with a group to laugh. It differs from your usual flow class in that there are no asanas (aka poses), but there’s still yogic breathing and stretching.
Laughing releases endorphins and oxytocin, and since laughter has proven to be contagious, doing it alongside others can instantly help boost your mood—even on your crappiest-feeling days. Studies that have looked at laughing yoga, in particular, have found that it helps decrease anxiety, stress, and depression, and it can also help foster connection. “A big part of laughter yoga is making eye contact, and that is also a way that people wind up feeling very connected,” says Lisa Berman, LCSW and founder of Laughter Yoga NYC. “In typical society, you don’t make eye contact like that unless you’re intimate with a person or have somehow been invited, but here you’re inviting everyone to make eye contact, and that creates an openness and an inviting warmth.”
Despite the fact that you’re not holding any headstands (or even settling into a child’s pose) during laughing yoga, it still brings about some significant physical benefits. According to Berman, laughter has been called “internal jogging” because it slows your heart rate down improves your circulation, and even qualifies as aerobic exercise because it’s a “forced exhalation,” and the breathing helps with cardiovascular fitness.
What happened when I tried laughing yoga
Umesh positioned us in a circle formation with each tourist sandwiched between laughing yogis, who I later learned start nearly every day with a session in the park. I turned to each of the men beside me to greet them, and while neither spoke English, each beamed smiles back in my direction. I immediately felt welcome and more calm.
“Okay, now just do what I do,” says Umesh. He then took a deep breath, threw his head back and hands up, and started belly laughing into the air.
I tried to do the same, but felt completely ridiculous at first. Forcing myself to laugh among a group of total strangers—when nothing particularly funny is happening, no less—was awkward and weird. But then, Umesh had us turn to our neighbors and make eye contact while we were laughing, and I completely lost it. The giggles I’d been forcing turned into deep, tear-inducing, I-think-I-might-pee-my-pants level cackles, which continued for the next 15 minutes.
I felt an overwhelming wave of emotions unlike anything I’d experienced before, and when the laughing yogi next to me hugged me goodbye, I burst into tears of joy.
By the time it was over, I was full off endorphins and exhausted. My heart was pounding, and I was breathing so hard, you would have thought I’d just finished a 5K. I felt an overwhelming wave of emotions unlike anything I’d experienced before, and when the laughing yogi next to me hugged me goodbye, I burst into tears of joy.
I was traveling solo, and teetering the far edge of my comfort zone in doing so, but those few minutes made me feel less alone than I had in years—and that’s exactly the point. “The word ‘yoga’ means unite, and laughter yoga… helps you ignite with yourself, with others, and with the world at large,” says Berman. So though I was thousands of miles from home, with strangers from different places, of different generations, and who spoke different languages, when we laughed together, I experienced the powerful sense of human connection I’ve ever felt.
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